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After Benghazi, embassy security checks hit by sequester

Jun. 20, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
By JIM McELHATTON   |   Comments
LIBYA-US-UNREST-BENGHAZI
Since last September's attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, the State Department's inspector general's office has concentrated its 'limited resources' on the physical security of posts in high-threat areas. But due to the sequester, the IG can't fully cover the travel costs of its auditors. (Gianluigi Guercia/AFP VIA Getty Images)

Since last year’s Benghazi, Libya, attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stephens and three others, the State Department’s watchdog office has deployed auditors to make sure diplomatic posts are safe in high-threat areas around the world.

But due to the sequester, the State Department’s Office of Inspector General can’t fully cover the travel costs of its auditors.

What’s more, even before the sequester, more than 100 diplomatic outposts hadn’t been inspected by the IG’s inspections office during the past five years.

Harold Geisel, deputy inspector general, disclosed the problem in a recent letter to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who is investigating the impact of the sequester on government watchdog offices.

“Due to the sequestration cuts, OIG is unable to fully fund travel for the auditors to evaluate the security posture of a number of high-threat overseasposts,” Geisel wrote .

A spokesman for the IG’s office declined to say which embassies are affected or to identify the “high risk” areas cited by Geisel’s letter.

Since the Benghazi attack, the IG’s audit office has concentrated its “limited resources” on the physical security of posts in high-threat environments, according to the letter.

The reviews include checks on intelligence gathering, the Marine security guard program, security standards for securing embassy compounds and the vetting process for hiring local contractor guards.

Travel cuts have also limited funding in the IG’s inspections office.

“The result will be fewer overseas inspections, or alternatively, the elimination of one larger domestic inspection, as well as diminished capacity to respond to unanticipated requests from senior Department officials and Congress,” Geisel wrote.

Even before the sequester, about 115 embassies and bureaus hadn’t been inspected in the past five years, Geisel said, warning that more cuts will lead to further delays.

But the cutbacks go far beyond embassy security, affecting forensic audits, contract oversight and even decisions about when to open a case.

Overall, sequester cuts lowered the IG’s fiscal 2013 budget by $3.1 million, but that’s on top of a $3.7 million reduction from the president’s $65.6 million request in the continuing resolution, according to the IG’s office.

Those combined cuts have reduced the IG’s overall 2013 budget request by more than 10 percent.

That has forced the IG’s office to cut a forensic auditor contractor who had been hired to support investigations of procurement fraud and corruption. The IG also cut funds to update a criminal investigations database.

The IG’s office told Shaheen that it cannot estimate how much losing the contracted forensic auditor will cost in missed savings opportunities. But Geisel cited one recent instance where early estimates in an investigation uncovered $2 million in losses to the government, but the forensic auditor later was able to identify $6.5 million.

“The loss of support for this program will significantly delay ... data mining efforts to identify fraud indicators in contract invoices and vouchers,” Geisel wrote.

He also said the forensic investigative auditor is used at the start of investigations to weed out allegations, “ensuring that we do not use valuable investigative time and resources on cases with insignificant financial vulnerabilities.”

The State Department watchdog office is hardly alone, as IG’s across government have warned Shaheen how budget cuts are forcing them to reduce efforts to uncover fraud and waste. Overall, IGs’ offices are being cut by about $100 million.

“We need to replace the sequester with a long-term budget plan like the Senate passed in March because, at a time of serious budget constraints, the need for inspectors generals is greater than ever,” Shaheen said in a statement to Federal Times.

In May, Federal Times reported the General Services Administration’s IG estimated more than a quarter-billion dollars would be lost due to the sequester because of fewer IG audit recommendations and financial recoveries.

“Cuts will impact the work of the IGs resulting in furloughs, leaner staffing and restricted travel that will affect audits and investigations, which is a penny wise and a pound foolish,” said Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, which has called on President Obama to appoint a permanent State Department IG.

“Additionally, we need a strong oversight community, and that begins with filling vacant IG positions and ensuring that morale remains high,” Amey said.

The State Department has not had an IG since 2008.

In his letter to Shaheen, Geisel said the impact of the sequester had been mitigated somewhat by the availability of nearly $6 million in carryover supplemental and overseas contingency operations funds that expire at the end of the fiscal year.

But in fiscal 2014, Geisel warned, “OIG will find it necessary to make difficult choices in where to cut staffing, travel and other essential requirements to minimize damage to its oversight mission.”

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